The Stanley Cup Finals are set to begin tomorrow night in the Meadowlands when the New Jersey Devils host the Los Angeles Kings. To set the stage for the series, TheSportsNotebook delves into the recent history of the Finals. We’ve had the drama of a Game 7 six times in the last twelve years. So let’s start off our Finals prep with a little walk-through of those great battles of recent Stanley Cup history…
2001: Colorado-New Jersey
The Devils were coming off a Cup win in 2000, and also had a title in 1995, with the same Martin Brodeur in goal that you’ll see on Wednesday night. In a league where upsets rule the day in the postseason, this one was a rare battle of powerhouses. Both the Avalanche and Devils were the top seed in their respective conferences, and while each had to deal with a seven-game battle in the second round, the first and third rounds went fairly painlessly as they moved toward a showdown that featured Brodeur against the great Colorado goalie Patrick Roy, who’d led his team to the top back in 1996.
Brodeur wasn’t on his game in the opener in Denver, as Joe Sakic scored a pair of early goals and Colorado coasted to a 5-0 win. Sakic scored an early goal again in Game 2, but Brodeur settled down, New Jersey got the goal back, eventually took the lead and won 2-1 to even the series. Back east, Colorado got a big goal from 40-year-old Ray Borque, who’d spent his career in Boston, but wanted one chance to win a Cup that the struggling Bruins could no longer give him.
The fans of Boston gladly accepted Borque’s trade and openly rooted for him to get his ring, and in Game 3 he delivered a go-ahead power play goal in the third period and his team won 3-1. In the next game, Roy made a key mistake handling the puck in his own end, effectively gifting New Jersey the goal that won the game 3-2 and tied the series. Each top goalie had his bad moments as the series passed the halfway point.
New Jersey looked ready to make Roy pay for his blunder, pounding him with four goals in Game 5 and moving to within a win of a second straight championship. But Brodeur returned the favor by struggling at home in Game 6 and a surprisingly easy 4-0 win sent the series back west for a final game. Sakic put the Avalanche in front, they eventually pulled ahead 3-0 and the Devils could only get a single goal back. The back-and-forth nature of the series, the quality of the teams and the Borque storyline made this compelling fare, but we also have to say that neither goalie had his best moment here and three of the games being fairly one-sided has to put the ’01 Finals in the what-might-have-been category for neutral fans.
2003: New Jersey-Anaheim
This series was covered in detail in TheSportsNotebook’s Historical Museum, in conjunction with New Jersey also enjoying the Nets’ run to the NBA Finals in the spring of ’03. Similarly, you can check out the New York Rangers’ seven-game finals against Vancouver, which paired up with the Knicks’ trip to the NBA Finals in the spring of 1994.
2004: Tampa Bay-Calgary
Tampa Bay was the top seed in the East and won a seven-game series with Philadelphia to clinch the East, while Calgary did what Los Angeles did this season and that’s beat all three division champs in the West—although the Flames did it from the 6-hole rather than as the 8-seed. And in spite of their lower seed, it was they who played the more composed hockey in a Finals opener on the road. Though they managed only 19 shots, they scored four times and won 4-1. Game 2 was tied up at a goal apiece in the third period when Brad Richards, now the New York Rangers’ center, led a three-goal charge for the Lightning that evened the series.
Calgary’s defense was in lockdown mode when they returned home to the Saddledome, holding Tampa to 21 shots in a Game 3 win, and even though Richards scored early in Game 4, Tampa never scored after that…the problem was, neither did Calgary and the Lightning’s 1-0 escape tied the series again. Officiating controversy loomed over this one, at least in the eyes of the Flames’ fans, as a roughing penalty on Ville Nieminen led to his suspension by the league for Game 5 and an NHL decision to use different refs for the return visit back here in Game 6.
The return visit would have the home team with a chance to clinch, as Calgary got a 3-2 overtime win down south in the fifth game. The sixth game also went OT tied at 2-2, and then into a second overtime before Tampa scored the survival goal to create a Game 7. The Lightning, playing from behind all series, finally got a 2-0 lead in the finale and then hung on for dear life, surviving a flurry of shots from Calgary down the stretch and prevailing 2-1.
This year’s Kings are only the second #8 seed to make the Finals since 1994, when the league shifted to a three-division format and started seeding based on conference position rather than just seeding each of two divisions 1 thru 4. The first was 2006 Edmonton, making its first Finals appearance since Wayne Gretzky had made them the center of the hockey world in the late 1980s. And they were ready to play against a Carolina team that had been the #2 seed in the East and beat fourth-seeded Buffalo in a seven-game Eastern finals. Edmonton scored the first three goals of Game 1. But Carolina got one back in the first period and then Ray Whitney—currently a key forward for Phoenix, scored twice in the third period. The teams traded goals and then the play that likely swung a championship occurred. Oiler goalie Dwayne Roloson hurt his knee and was lost for the series. Ty Conklin came in to replace him and while handling the puck behind his own net late in the game mishandled it and inexplicably allowed Carolina to score the game-winner into an empty net.
Edmonton played goalie roulette with three different players in Game 2 and lost 5-zip. They settled on Jussi Markkanen back home for Game 3 and he delivered a 2-1 win that made it a series. But the Carolina penalty kill dominated Game 4, shutting down five Oiler power plays, making them 24/25 on the kill for the series and winning a 2-1 game of their own.
There was little reason to think this would turn into a series, especially when Carolina got two power play goals in Game 5 and took a 2-1 lead. But Edmonton eventually tied it 3-3 and then in overtime figured if they couldn’t score on their power play, then why not try the opposition’s? A shorthanded goal in OT sent the series north of the border for a Game 6, where this time Edmonton cashed in with the man advantage. Three power play goals led the way to a 4-0 win. Game 7 was a good game, but one that Carolina was able to keep in control, leading 2-0, then 2-1 early in the third and ultimately getting an empty-net goal late to clinch the Cup.
It was a Rustbelt Rematch, as the Red Wings had won the ’08 Cup over Pittsburgh in a good six-game series. Detroit rolled all the way back, as the top seed in the West. Pittsburgh had a rougher ride. They were five points out of the playoffs with 23 games to go, when the front office pulled the trigger on a coaching change. Under Dan Blysma, the crew that was still led then—as they are now—by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc Andre-Fleury in goal, moved up to the #4 seed by playoff time and then rolled to the conference title.
Detroit goalie Chris Osgood was the story of the first two games at Joe Louis Arena, saving 63 of 65 shots as his team posted a pair of 3-1 wins. The Pittsburgh offense broke through, with consecutive 4-2 wins in the middle games, as Crosby got his first goal in Game 4. Osgood warmed to the home crowd for Game 5, and the Wings looked on the brink of a repeat with a easy 5-0 win. But Andre-Fleury would be the goaltender who owned the last two games. He hung to a 2-1 win in the sixth game, even as Detroit pounded him with 14 third period shots. In the seventh game, the Pens grabbed a 2-0 lead in the second period and then hunkered down in the third, only attempting one shot and going to a defense-first approach that would have made Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau proud. The Wings got a goal with 6:07 left, but with only eight third-period shots there weren’t enough chances and Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup for the first time since Mario Lemieux’s teams in 1991-92.
The Canucks were the President’s Trophy winners, with the Bruins seen as a fairly pedestrian Northeast Division champ and #3 seed in the East. Both teams barely survived the first round, needing overtime in the seventh game to escape. For Vancouver, the Game 7 OT came after being up 3-0 in games, a situation Boston was all too familiar with after losing that same series lead to Philadelphia in the 2010 playoffs (and a series that as a Bruins fan I will absolutely never get over).
Boston goalie Tim Thomas was outstanding in the first two games, facing 30-plus shots each time out from an elite offensive team. But Vancouver got a goal with 19 seconds left in Game 1 to win 1-0 and then won in overtime 3-2 in the second game. It was the middle games where this became a series, as Boston not only defended home ice, they dominated, with the combined score being 12-1 and Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo being chased from the net in Game 4 in favor of Cory Schneider.
Back home in the Pacific Northwest, Luongo was at home and he and Thomas were in a scoreless duel in the third period of Game 5 when Vancouver broke through and won 1-0. But the inconsistent Canuck goalie was hammered with four goals in the first five minutes of Game 6, again lifted for Schneider while Thomas saved 36 of 38 shots and his team won 5-2.
One would think it was apparent that Luongo could not handle the pressure and to give Schneider the call for the decisive seventh game. But Vancouver went back to the well and Boston made them pay. Patrice Bergeron scored twice, including a first-period goal that would prove to be all Thomas needed, as he turned back all 37 Canuck shots. Brad Marchand had an assist on the first goal, scored to give Boston a 2-0 lead and added the empty-netter that finished it at 4-0. Boston was champs. Vancouver at least learned its lesson about Luongo—this past year in the playoffs, they left him in for three games against Los Angeles, lost all three, tried to turn to Schneider, but it was too late…Wait a minute, that’s not learning their lesson at all. For the Bruins’ it was a long time coming as they hoisted the Cup for the first time since 1972.
This brief historical walk through isn’t intended for us to draw any conclusions about this year’s Finals—that will be for tomorrow morning’s series preview—but it’s surely worth noting that in five of the six series, the ultimate winner was the one who had their back to the wall in Game 6 (the exception was the New Jersey-Anaheim series in ’03). While the road team has won the last two Finals Game 7s, and this year’s Kings have owned the road, we still have to note that the home team in these six overall is 4-2.
Where will New Jersey-Los Angeles in 2012 fit into the historical pantheon? We’ll find out starting Wednesday night.